The power of words

The Power of Words

When I was going through my IVF treatments, I would sit at home each evening and write about the day’s progress – how many follicles were developing, how long I’d had to wait at the clinic, an analysis of every important word I’d heard uttered by various medical staff and details of how I was feeling, both physically and emotionally.

I wasn’t writing with any purpose in mind; I wrote because I didn’t know what else to do and pouring my thoughts onto paper seemed to help me to make some sense of the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. At the time of writing, there wasn’t a single thought in my mind about publishing my stream of consciousness – it was just something I felt I needed to do.

I had no idea that the concept of writing as a form of therapy had been well established for decades. Back in the 1960s, American psychologist Dr Ira Progoff discovered that when his clients wrote about their experiences, they were able to get through difficulties more quickly and easily. He developed what was known as the Intensive Journal Method to help people to use writing effectively, working with ring binder folders divided into sections to represent the different areas of their lives. The idea of the healing nature of writing was further popularised by psychologist Dr James Pennebaker who has been described as a ‘pioneer of writing therapy’. He found that when people wrote down how they felt about any emotional upheaval in their lives for just a few days, there was a marked positive effect; he has since written widely about the impact expressive writing can have.

In recent years, many studies have investigated the therapeutic nature of writing, and it is increasingly apparent that there are clear benefits to writing when we are trying to deal with traumatic or stressful events. Although you may feel as if you are dwelling on a problem by focusing on it in this way, research has found that writing can lead to improvements in both physical and emotional health – there have been a wide variety of claims about the positive impact for everything from boosting the immune system to lowering the heart rate.

From a fertility point of view, there is no suggestion that writing about how you feel will get you pregnant, but it may well improve your overall well-being and ability to deal with the ups and downs of treatment. Israeli writer David Grossman put it very neatly in a lecture delivered in 2007: “As soon as we lay our hand on the pen, or the computer keyboard, we already cease to be the helpless victims of whatever it was that enslaved and diminished us before we began to write” – and this is certainly true of anyone who feels overwhelmed by their fertility problems.

Dr Gillie Bolton is a world-renowned expert on the therapeutic nature of writing, and a former senior research fellow at King’s College London. She has written numerous academic papers and books on the subject and says writing allows people to express emotions that may otherwise feel too difficult or challenging. “Writing can be therapeutic in difficult situations because it can enable exploration and expression of feelings and experience in a relatively safe way,” she says.

“Writing is private until the writer chooses to share it with another. Conversation, even with a trusted person, can feel dangerously exposing: we cannot ask them to forget what we’ve told them. Writing’s very privacy makes for a safe space in which to help otherwise un-shareable stuff to surface, be reflected upon, come to terms with, and ultimately be shared.”

Many fertility patients choose to share their feelings more publicly via online blogging, and Laura Costello is one of many bloggers who found writing helped during the tough times. She chronicled the journey of her attempts at donor conception with her partner Amy on her blog (weforgotthesperm.com).

Laura did eventually get pregnant and still writes her blog about life with their much-loved daughter. She says the blog has been helpful in a number of ways: “I started writing because not only does it give me something to look back on in the future, it also allows me to organise my thoughts. That was really important at particularly low times, allowing me to step back and take stock.”

Lancaster University PHD student Karen Kinloch has been researching fertility blogs, and believes their growing popularity is part of a wider trend. “Blogging generally has increased, especially for women in the age group who are most likely to be affected by fertility issues, aged 24-49,” she explains. “Blogging offers both the community aspect of a support group with the anonymity the internet affords.

Several of my case-study bloggers mention they feel judged when they talk about their infertility in real life or feel they will be bombarded with insensitive advice – like ‘relax and it will happen’. The blogging community will often be asked for advice as experts in navigating the fertility treatment process and may feel more reliable than other internet health sites (not that this is necessarily the case).”

Dani Fenning started her blog, thegreatpuddingclubhunt.com, soon after she was diagnosed with unexplained infertility. “I was finding it difficult to sleep after our diagnosis because I had so many thoughts and questions running through my head; simply writing them down helped me work through these feelings.

I was also finding it difficult to talk to friends and family about what we had been going through and what we were about to undergo with fertility treatment, so I realised that sharing my thoughts about our infertility would help me to overcome what I found initially to be very awkward!

At the beginning I kept my blog for close friends and family, but on the day of our very first IVF embryo transfer I sat in the surgery preparation area thinking ‘Why am I hiding this huge life-changing event?’ I asked my husband, Chris, how he felt about sharing this moment with everyone, and he agreed with me that we would no longer keep it a secret. So later that day we shared a photo of our two embryos with a link to my blog on Facebook. The overwhelming love and support we received was incredible.”

Dani has been even more open about her fertility and her blog in recent weeks as it was circulated widely by her friends, family and colleagues after she was caught up in the terrorist attack at Brussels airport. Dani was having a cup of coffee in the departures lounge when the first bomb exploded, and describes in her blog how she threw herself to the floor before the second bomb went off, showering her with debris and sending a fireball across the ceiling.

She decided to write about what she experienced in Brussels on her blog because it has always been her therapy, not only for going through infertility, but for other things in her life too. Her post about finding herself in the midst of a terrorist attack is incredibly moving and as a result, her fertility blog has reached many who might never have had any understanding of what trying to conceive unsuccessfully can feel like. By writing about something which was of such interest to so many people, Dani’s blog has helped to raise awareness about the realities of living with fertility problems in a way she never anticipated.

Raising awareness was not Jody Day’s main concern either when she wrote her first blog post about being childless five years ago.

“At the time, I felt like the only childless woman in the world as no one in my circle of friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances had wanted to be a mother and it hadn’t worked out,” Jody explains. “When I did try to talk about it, all I ever seemed to get back were ‘miracle baby stories’ rather than the empathy I craved. For me, blogging gave me a chance, for the first time, to ‘say’ my thoughts out loud in public without being interrupted with ‘useful’ advice about fertility.

It seemed that though I was facing up to the end of my 15-year journey to become a mother, no one else wanted to! As I pressed ‘publish’ on that first blog in April 2011 I remember thinking, ‘If just one person reads this it will be enough’.”

In fact, within days, women from around the world were getting in touch to say how much Jody’s blog had resonated with them and she began to realise quite how many other women shared her feelings. “I continued to blog and the responses from others helped my shattered confidence and sense of self regroup,” she explains. “My writing, as well as helping me articulate my loss, was helping others do the same. Therapeutic writing gave me back my voice, my sanity, my confidence and my tribe. I think it saved my life.”

Jody Day still blogs (gateway-women.com) but she would never have expected that her first blog post would eventually lead to a global network of Gateway Women who offer one another mutual support in dealing with childlessness. Jody has also progressed from blogging to writing a book, Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children, which has been described as a “must read for every childless-by-circumstance woman”.

My writing finally led to books too and my scribbled notes during my IVF cycles turned out to have another use I’d never have anticipated as I went back to them many times during the writing process. I’d had an unsuccessful fresh cycle, followed by an unsuccessful frozen one and I decided that if my IVF wasn’t going to work, perhaps at least there was a way of turning a negative experience into something worthwhile. By that point, my desire to write about what was happening to me had been overtaken by a desire to write for other people about all the things I’d wished someone had told me before I’d started on the path of fertility tests and treatment.

My first book was finally picked up by a publisher and I’ve gone on to write three more since, including The Complete Guide to IVF and a book for those who are pregnant or parents after fertility problems called Precious Babies which I wrote after conceiving twice with IVF.

For me, having worked as a journalist for many years, telling my own story felt surprisingly comfortable – but you don’t have to be aiming to write a book, or even a blog for public consumption, to benefit from the therapeutic powers of writing.

If you’ve never done it before, the idea of putting your thoughts down may seem daunting, but this is writing for you, not for anyone else. You don’t have to worry about spelling or grammar or making sense and it doesn’t matter if your mind (and words) keep jumping from one thing to the next in a random way. This is an opportunity to splurge onto the page whatever you feel like getting out. Some people find it easier to write at the end of the day or first thing in the morning before getting out of bed, but you don’t have to write at any specific time, or even every day – just write when you feel you can.

Dr Gillie Bolton says the secret is feeling free to write whatever comes into your mind: “Therapeutic writing is wonderful for those who have never previously written a journal or any other creative form. To start all you need to do is allow your hand to write whatever comes, for a few minutes. This permission is the key: allowing thoughts and feelings, images or memories, to flow onto the page. To help you do this, find a place and time you can be happily alone, knowing no one will interrupt. Then follow these few minutes free flow with an enjoyable, straightforward game such as writing a list (e.g. ‘things I enjoyed doing when I was little’).”

So why not try occasionally devoting a little time to letting your thoughts go and see where it leads? If you find it helpful, you may want to think about starting your own blog. It’s incredibly easy to do using blog creation sites such as Blogger or WordPress and you can make it completely anonymous, if you prefer.

However, as Karen Kinloch points out, blogging is not only helpful to those who write blogs, but also to those who read them. “I think it can decrease feelings of isolation which might occur when you are having fertility problems. There is lots of literature on the benefits of therapeutic writing and health and I think this applies equally to writing and publishing online.”

Dani Fenning would certainly agree, and she urges everyone to give blogging a try: “It is a sensitive and personal issue, but blogging about my infertility has helped me through some really bad days, days when I’ve had tears rolling down my cheeks as I type. But the support I have received through my blogging has kept me going through those tough days, so I would recommend it to anyone fighting this disease. I have also met some incredible TTC sisters through my blog, women who have been through what we have – it really helps to be able to discuss our experiences with one another. I realised that I was not alone.”

Kate Brian
A former Channel Four News journalist, Kate is the author of The Complete Guide to IVF and Precious Babies. She’s the London representative for Infertility Network UK and Editor of the Journal of Fertility Counselling. Kate’s children were both IVF babies, and she specialises in writing about fertility.

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